Florence + the Machine and Taboo Love Sparked Akwaeke Emezi’s Sexy, Sad Summer Must-Read
'You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty' was born from the writer's internal process—plus an obsession with cooking shows and one specific Florence lyric.
If two people have sex on a mountaintop at dawn in a novel, it should be greenlit for a movie adaptation immediately. Luckily, 2018's National Book Award "5 Under 35" honoree Akwaeke Emezi's new summer romance must-read You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty, which includes exactly such a scene, has followed this model perfectly: More than a year before it was published on May 27, Michael B. Jordan's production company scooped up the rights to make the book into a movie, with Emezi to executive produce, for Amazon. Because mountaintop fucking: That's cinema, baby.
Emezi's first romance novel—after four works of bestselling fiction, a memoir, and a poetry collection, all published since 2018—is far more than just its steamy parts (which, it's worth mentioning, are written gorgeously, unafraid of the sex itself and its messy emotions). It follows Feyi Adekola, a young and hot visual artist living in Brooklyn with her also young and hot best friend Joy, through a summer as she heals from the trauma of her five-year widowhood via new relationships, spontaneous travel, Michelin star-worthy food, and art-making. One rooftop party leads to a bar hangout that leads to a man, Nasir, inviting Feyi to stay at his family home on a Caribbean island. Only Nasir doesn't mention his dad is a reclusive celebrity chef named Alim Blake, who is also widowed. Feyi's world becomes confusing after they meet, forcing her to wrestle with the desires of others versus her own, the fear of moving on from her dead husband, and the realities of what she ultimately chooses. But Emezi's prose traverses the emotional spectrum; one page will be crushingly sad, the next will have you laughing out loud, and a few pages later will be devastatingly horny. It's all part of the journey.
Weeks before You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty was released, Emezi met with Thrillist over Zoom to talk about the novel's inspirations. Frankly, this proved to be difficult because Emezi is an intuitive writer; the work practically channels itself onto the page with little attention given to outside influence. "When I'm writing books, I don't really get a choice about what the characters want to do," Emezi says. "I start writing it and then they decide what they are doing and I have to fatefully transcribe it." Our conversation ended up being a meandering and fascinating one about themes, process, and, yes, a few moments of divine inspiration.
Florence + the Machine
One of the few concrete external inspirations Emezi points to is the Florence + the Machine song "Hunger." You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty is a lyric taken directly from that song.
I can't remember when exactly the title showed up. I know I was listening to that album that the song "Hunger" is on [High as Hope]. The full lyric starts off with, "Oh, you and all your vibrant youth / How could anything bad ever happen to you?" And it's just so reverent. I think that's one of the things that Feyi and Alim have for each other, this reverence.
I spent ages trying to find a different title for the book because I thought it was too long. And I thought that, legally, you couldn't use song lyrics as book titles, because people on "writer Twitter" say that all the time. And so I tried all these different titles. I think one of the alternate titles I had for it was just simply Alive, and the book just was like, "No, I'm so sorry. This is the only title that I want."
So when we took it out on submission, I figured, well, if we can't use it legally, or if they say, "Hey, this is too long to put on a cover," then I can try and figure out the new title with the support of the team. And I don't have to try and figure it out alone. It turns out they were fine with the title. I was really amazed that both the US and the UK publisher were able to fit us on the cover so beautifully. And it turns out it is legal to use a song lyric as a book title, so it all works out. The only issue now is that if I ever decide to write sequels, I have to find matching titles.
Illicit love stories
You Made a Fool of Death is, fair warning, a DILF novel, which Emezi knew would have different mileage for different people. One thing Emezi didn't want when setting out to write a romance novel was anything too trope-y, even for the genre.
Every single romance novel that you read, you know who the love interests are and you read it anyway. You know exactly which two characters are going to end up together. And the point of reading romance is not to be surprised by who ends up together, but to follow them on the journey of how they ended up together. Just a straight-shot "boy meets girl…"—and then what? I honestly can't even imagine that. So I definitely wanted to do an illicit love triangle because it's fun. And because I think that the taboo love stories deserve their own space. And I mean, they do—there's a lot of romance novels that are far more taboo than full of depth, but it's just more interesting for me to write. If something is interesting, then there's a better chance that I'm going to be able to finish writing it in the first place, rather than getting bored and stopping.
I've had to stop reading reader reviews because the book is so polarizing. People either love it or they absolutely do not like it. And you can see where some people are having critiques that are consistent. Someone had an issue with the insta-love in it: "The romance, it's too fast." I was like, "It's a romance novel!" And fair enough, people are looking for different things. I had to remind myself that stories like this do exist. There are people who they meet each other, they get married after two weeks, and stay together for 50 years. They may not be common, but they do exist. There's room for every possibility, and not everyone has to like the story.
It's so different from writing literary fiction. People are more invested on a personal level for this romance. It's like all your personal opinions about dating and dating ethics in this book are such a huge thing. What is appropriate? And people's feelings about age gaps or about honesty—like, everything comes up. It's so visceral. I want people to root for [Feyi and Alim], even if they thought they shouldn't at first. So even if they thought they were kind of wrong, then you get inside them and you see how much it means. I'm like, "Be converted! Be converted to the gospel of their love." How did you not fall for the mountain fucking?
The queer gaze
Though the surface-level description of the novel could scan as a heterosexual love story, You Made a Fool of Death is very queer. Feyi's roommate Joy is a lesbian dealing with her own relationship drama, Feyi herself is bisexual, and Alim tells Feyi about his relationship after his wife died with a man he loved but gave up because of his children's and society's disapproval.
I wanted to write a really supportive queer friendship because I was like, "I very much know what this is like." Part of why the story is set in [the Brooklyn neighborhood] Bed-Stuy at first is because that's where I lived for about 10 years, and that's where I first came out as queer and first found queer community. And then you're just like, "Oh, okay, this is a lesbian incest circle. Everyone has slept with everyone else. Fantastic [laughs]." And so you end up with situations like Joy and Feyi. You end up with two best friends who live together who have history and have just moved past it and are now supporting each other as they fuck their way through Brooklyn.
It was important to me to write Alim as a Black bisexual man who is the love interest in a romance novel. I think it's less controversial because Feyi herself is also bisexual. I think if she was a straight Black girl and dating a Black bisexual man, then that's really the topic that gets a lot of controversy in the community. But I still wanted him to be that because it influences so much about who he is and about his decision to fight for a chance with Feyi because he's already had to give up love before because of biphobia, homophobia, just anti-queer sentiment, even from his own children. And he's chosen to be a father and to be there for his children rather than to pursue a romantic relationship that they disapproved of or that his community disapproved of.
In some ways, for his story, separate from anything in the book, it's actually, I think, a little sad. Because part of why he's able to end up with Feyi is because they pass as a het couple. And even though his children don't accept it, other people will, because she's not a man. For a book that's so much about grief, there's also grief for Alim, separate from his wife, but even for the other love that he loves, where it's like, "Oh, he couldn't be with him because it wasn't acceptable." And yes, the love with Feyi is real and all of that, but—I guess maybe it's not a "but"; it's like an "and"—it's real and it's easier because she's a woman.
Emezi's own art
In the novel, Feyi's art is part of her grieving process. Having lost her husband in a car crash, she often incorporates (pig's) blood. In much of You Made a Fool of Death, Feyi is working on a large-scale installation, and when it's finally shown to the public, Feyi and Alim lock eyes across the room and both immediately understand the overwhelming power and devastating intent behind it.
I make visual art myself, so I just imagined what I would make if I was Feyi. I wasn't going to make her a painter because I am not a painter. I've written painters before, like with the YA novel Bitter—the main character is a painter. But for Feyi, with a book that is that intimate to the character, something that's so intimate to her work, I went with what I know best, which is working with blood. That's the primary medium that I use in my visual art. And I really gave a lot of thought to what her art would be like, because one of my pet peeves is when I'm watching a movie or a TV show or reading a book, and one of the characters is an artist but then the art is bad—it annoys me so much because you are expecting me to suspend disbelief and buy this character's career. Because they're never a bad artist, right? Like, no one makes work about bad artists. They make work where everyone is like, "Oh my goodness, your art is so amazing." And if I'm watching or reading it, and I'm looking at the art and it's not, then I've lost the connection to the work because I'm like, "This is a lie. Their work sucks [laughs]." Everyone here is pretending that it doesn't suck, which means that no one in your movie or whatever has good taste. And now, I'm aesthetically offended by everything in this movie and I don't want to watch it anymore because no one has good taste, including the person who made it. So I definitely didn't want that to happen to my work. I wanted to be able to write art that was good.
Someone once told me years ago that the thing that makes visual art Art is not even necessarily the art itself, but the story that goes with it. If you can tell a good story, if your art has a strong story behind it, then it works. For me, even visual art is a story; that's how I work, at least. It's another container for storytelling. And Feyi is telling a story with all of the art. There's one thing, which is the private creation of the work, and then there's the public showing of it, which is a step in completing the work as well. Because a story—and this is something I say about books often—isn't complete until someone hears it. So with visual art that's also a story, it's the same. You can make it and keep it locked up in a vault, but the story isn't complete until someone sees it. And I think that moment with Feyi and Alim, it's like when a piece of art or a story finds its way to the exact person who needed it, the exact person who understands it and feels reflected in it. It's a really powerful moment, I think.
The sensory experience of food
Because Alim is a famous chef, Emezi made sure to work in descriptions of his food that leap off the page. We can thank the author's obsession with cooking shows (and guidance from a real chef) for that.
A lot of the creative process is asking questions and then having the answer just show up: "Who would be a good match for Feyi? Who has the qualities that would balance her out in a way and still be sexy?" And so when I imagine like, okay, what would this hot DILF look like, the answer is a chef. A chef would be great, because who doesn't love a chef [laughs]? Who wouldn't want to be with somebody who's like, "Yeah, I have two Michelin stars and I can make you anything"?
It worked really well because it's such a sensory experience, working with food. Because there's sights, like you can see it, you can taste it, you can feel textures, you can smell it. It engages so many senses at the same time. A lot of my work is very sensory in a way, where it's descriptive. And the reason for that is because whenever I'm writing, it's visual first, like I can see it in my head. The way I write is meant to try and capture as much of the visual as possible. If I see a room, then I have to write what it looks like, what it smells like, what that person felt—it's immersive. And all of my work is meant to be immersive because I'm trying to replicate the experience I'm having in my imagination of being immersed into an actual landscape. Food is a great way to do that because you get to use so many descriptors that engage so many of the senses. I did watch a lot of cooking shows. I'm also obsessed with cooking shows in general, so it really wasn't a leap.
I think, honestly, I might have been watching cooking shows and been like, "I want an excuse to write about this." But the first draft of the book had all these descriptions of the food that I had kind of cobbled together. However, if there's going to be art in my book, it has to be good. And it has to be good enough to meet the standards of not laypeople, but people who actually work in that industry. The food, in the same vein, had to be good enough where a professional chef would read that and say, "Oh, that sounds solid."
I'm not a professional chef, so what I did was I commissioned one. I took out all the sections that had food in the book and showed them to him and he was like, "This does not make any sense. At all." He's like, "These are not coherent dishes." And I was like, "I know that. I just put together a bunch of stuff. That's why I'm asking you." So he rewrote every single meal in the book and wrote an entire menu of everything and added, "Hey, this is what it would smell like. These are the aromas that would be in the room. This is what the color would look like. These are the plates that the food should be on. These are the drinks that go along with the seven-course dinner that Alim makes." And then I just incorporated everything he wrote into it. And he was also thinking about Alim as a character: "Okay, this middle-aged Caribbean man." Because all the food has the mark of the chef on it, it shows their personality. So all the meals that are in the book now that Alim makes are reflective of his personality, his heritage, his interests in terms of his work. They speak as strongly to who he is as Feyi's art does to who she is.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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